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Michael Coveney: Royal Court lines up with Pussy Riot

By • West End
It seemed a natural thing to do, said Elyse Dodgson, who runs the international programme at the Royal Court: to align a theatre with a history of protest and dissent with the worldwide denunciation of the heavy-handed treatment of Moscow punk group Pussy Riot, charged with "hooliganism" and sentenced to two years' imprisonment on Friday.

The three women band members, who have already served five months in custody - Nadezhda Tolokonniva, aged 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30 - were represented in a packed downstairs cafe free event on Friday morning by actresses - Lyndsey Marshal, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Lydia Wilson - reading their statements in court, which had been translated by Sasha Dugdale.

Their crime? A 40-second "punk prayer" - "Virgin Mary, chase out Putin" - performed in balaclavas with dodgy choreography in a church. The women have apologised in court for offending members of the congregation in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. But they have not apologised to President Putin, who has lately increased his hold over the Orthodox church as an instrument of power.

One of the most embarrassing incidents in Putin's era was the loss of the trapped crew in the Kursk submarine, an incident that has already been commemorated, as it were, in a play by Bryony Lavery and the Sound&Fury company at the Young Vic. The Pussy Riot trio referred to the Kursk debacle in their statements, as well as to the history of persecution of artists in Russia: of the Surrealists, of Alexander Solzhenytzin, of Joseph Brodsky, all of them evoked in their powerful, witty and disdainful speeches.

Brodsky's poetry, some of the greatest in the twentieth century, was denounced by the Kremlin as "so-called" poetry, just as the activities of Pussy Riot have been denounced as "so-called" art (no claims being submitted, least of all by the women themselves, to claim artistic parity with Brodsky) in what they reasonably termed this "so-called" trial.

As Victor Sebestyen reminded Times readers on Saturday, there was a similar prosecution of the Czechoslovakian rock group Plastic People of the Universe, who were banned and harassed and occasionally beaten up by the Czech secret police after the brutal Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. They were championed by Vaclav Havel and attained heroic status with the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

The Plastics, and indeed Havel himself, featured in a Royal Court play in 2006, Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, a play that also celebrated the place of pop and rock music as an artistic expression of dissent in the shape of the Rolling Stones and Syd Barrett.

(Rock 'n Roll is the only play in my experience of the Royal Court to have received a standing ovation on its first night; people have often stood up for Edward Bond, but usually on their way to the exit doors.)

And even further back in the Court's history in the 1970s there were plays by David Hare and Sam Shepard - the former's Teeth 'n' Smiles (starring Helen Mirren as a May Ball rocker) and the latter's brilliant Brechtian face-off between an Elvis-like has-been and a new pretender, Tooth of Crime; that "pretender" was played by Richard O'Brien whose The Rocky Horror Show had just opened in the Court's Theatre Upstairs.    

But these aberrations caused friction at the traditionally left-leaning, ascetically puritan Royal Court, which did not have all that much time for rock music, although Max Stafford-Clark stage a mis-fired musical (directed by Simon Curtis) called Apples (1989) with a punk rock score by Ian Dury. Tasteful soundtracks by Alan Price (of the Animals) for Lindsay Anderson productions, and Steeleye Span enlivening some great shows directed by Bill Bryden in the Theatre Upstairs were about as far as they went.

So it was ironic that Stoppard - not really a Royal Court writer - should have broken the mould so memorably, and so politically. The Rocky Horror Show was not really a Royal Court show, either, but it was voted the most popular "play" in the history of the Court in its 50th birthday celebrations, beating out anything by John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Caryl Churchill or David Storey, though I've got a hunch it might not beat Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem if the poll were taken again today.

The crucial statement about Pussy Riot was the one that they claim to make oppositional art as a form of civic action. People do worse things than kick up their heels in a cathedral and utter low level blasphemy. They might, in this country, for instance, cause similar, or even deeper, offence by attacking a convoy of cars containing the royal family or by climbing drunkenly to the top of the Cenotaph and raising a union flag.

For those latter transgressions, during the student riots of 2010, Charlie Gilmour, the adoptive son of Pink Floyd musician Dave Gilmour, was sentenced to sixteen months imprisonment (he was released after four). I don't remember the Royal Court staging a protest on his behalf, but then Charlie wasn't perceived to be an artist.

His dad, mind you, most definitely is, and so is his blood father, Heathcote Williams, who wrote one of the most brilliant, anarchic plays ever staged at the Court, AC/DC. A letter in today's Times accuses the liberal uproar over Pussy Riot of being hypocritical. The fact is that Charlie was high on drugs, booze and middle-class political anger, and if we'd cared as much about his right to protest and offend the moral majority, then we should have opposed his prosecution as much as we do that of Pussy Riot. It's a fair point.


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